Duchess of Cambridge urged to speak out on exploitation of garment workers

By agency reporter
18 May 2012

War on Want has called on the Duchess of Cambridge to speak out as the anti-poverty charity launched a new report which shows how western brands are sourcing from south-east Asian factories which exploit female migrant workers.

Young women migrants from rural areas represent almost 90 per cent of garment workers in Cambodia, from where the Duchess' favourite fashion retailer Zara imports many of its clothes. But 10-hour shifts in the peak season earned just 20p an hour, or £50-55 ($80-90) a month.

And amid Kate Middleton’s role as a Team GB ambassador for the London Olympics, the report identifies the Games partner Adidas among other brands exploiting Cambodian workers. It also names three more sportswear brands sourcing clothes from Cambodia – Nike, Puma and Reebok – besides H&M, Gap, Marks & Spencer, Levi Strauss, Timberland and Benetton.

Laia Blanch, international programmes officer at War on Want, said: “Western brands promote themselves as ethical and responsible towards the people who make their goods. But they maximise their profits and minimise costs by exploiting migrant women workers as cheap labour. It is high time the British government stopped this abuse.”

Nine out of ten Cambodian women interviewed for the report told how, despite sharing a room with four or five others, they needed to cut back on essential food in order to send any money home to their families.

Phhoung*, 29, a migrant worker in the capital Phnom Penh from her country’s central province Kampong Thom, said: “Our food is not good enough for our health. I live with four other friends who came from the same village as me. It is really crowded for us in the small room, but we have no choice.”

In addition to Cambodia, the report, Restricted Rights, cites Adidas, Nike, Reebok, Levi Strauss, Timberland and Benetton profiting from workers forced to endure exploitative conditions in neighbouring Thailand.

Burmese migrant women in Thailand’s border town Mae Sot received just £1.40 (69 baht) for 10-11 hours’ toil, less than half the minimum wage. About half of the employees interviewed in Thailand lived in dormitories in the factory grounds, where conditions were often overcrowded and unsanitary. Not one of the factories where the women interviewed for this report work had a trade union.

Exploited Burmese migrant women interviewed in Malaysia worked in electronics – supplying firms such as Dell, Samsung, Sony, Panasonic and Hitachi – and the garment sector, which featured brands like Adidas, Nike, Reebox, Gap, Eider UK and Levi Strauss.

Workers were so desperate for jobs that they paid recruitment agencies up to $1,000 to find them employment – money which is then deducted from their wages. Most of the women interviewed in Malaysia could only afford cramped homes with many workmates – one lived with 17 others and her room barely measured three square metres.

War on Want is demanding that the Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke establish a business, human rights and environment commission to protect rights for workers in British retailers’ supply chains.

*Phhoung is a pseudonym for the worker’s real name in order to protect her identity.

[Ekk/4]

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